The Metropolitan Division rivals will meet Thursday at 4 p.m. for their second game of the NHL restart, with the Capitals looking to bounce back from a shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in their first meaningful game in the bubble earlier this week.
“Philly’s always a big rival of ours … We were battling all the time in the past,” Tom Wilson said. “But I think it’s one of those rivals where you know, whether it’s a week or four months or whatever, you know you’re gonna have to show up.”
The Flyers went 3-0-1 against the Capitals in 2019-20, dominating their final two meetings 7-2 and 5-2 as they both picked up momentum and gained on Washington in the division standings. When the pandemic halted the season, Philadelphia lurked just one point behind the Capitals for the Metro lead.
Led by veteran coach Alain Vigneault, who took charge of the team in 2019, the Flyers had a young core come together and achieve their best divisional finish in 10 years. They’re balanced: Only Philadelphia and Colorado finished with a top seven offense and top seven defense, in goals-per-game terms.
In their restart-opening, 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins on Sunday, eight Flyers players had at least one point. Their young defensemen, namely Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Phillippe Myers, helped hold the Bruins’ top six forwards in check.
Capitals defenseman Radko Gudas is familiar with most everyone on the Flyers‘ roster; Gudas played there from 2015 to 2019 until he was traded to Washington last summer. He hasn’t been surprised about his former team’s rise this season.
“It’s fun to see some guys stepping up and being better players than they were,” the Czech said. “They’re a better team than they were before. I think they’re doing a lot of good things, but I also think we are a team that is known for how well things are done and can be done. It’s going to be a good battle tomorrow so I’m looking forward to that, and I think we’re the better team than them.”
Capitals coach Todd Reirden singled out center Sean Couturier, a Selke Trophy finalist for the best defensive forward in the NHL. Couturier has been a complete package for Philadelphia, with everything from 60 hits and an imposing 59.6% faceoff win percentage to 59 points, which ranked second on the team.
“You see a guy like Couturier’s game really just continuing to get better and better and better, but it’s not just him, it’s their whole group,” Reirden said. “They’ve got some good chemistry and they’re playing well so it’s gonna be a real challenge for us.”
Reirden said all Capitals players in the bubble practiced Wednesday, including John Carlson, who sat out Monday’s game while nursing an undisclosed injury. Carlson remains day-to-day, the coach said. Braden Holtby will start in net, while the Flyers will use their No. 2 goalie, Brian Elliott.
If the Flyers beat the Capitals in regulation, the Capitals will be mathematically out of the running for the No. 1 seed in the first “real” round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That might be the only thing that’s technically on the line Thursday, but gamesmanship might still be afoot inside the bubble. Vigneault said he and Alex Ovechkin bumped into each other when heading to breakfast Wednesday and they chatted about their upcoming game.
“Usually that doesn’t happen,” Vigneault said with a chuckle. “But they’re excited about tomorrow’s game and we’re excited.”
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